This election exposed an unsettling truth: Americans in both parties are giving up on democracy

A picture of Trump hangs outside a house in West Des Moines, Iowa.
A picture of Trump hangs outside a house in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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Donald Trump might win today. Or he might lose. Whatever happens, America will wake up on Nov. 9, 2016, knowing a lot more about itself than it did before.

Trump is likely to wrap up this whole election with well more than 40% of the popular vote, according to the latest polls. What Trump’s sizable base of support implies about America’s future is deeply disquieting because—and let’s be clear—Trump is a threat to democracy.

Most obviously, the Republican nominee has repeatedly charged that the US presidential election is “rigged,” despite lacking any evidence of voter fraud. He coyly refuses to say whether he’ll accept the election results, as though uniting the country after an election is a “will he, or won’t he?” tease from his reality-television playbook.

Many of his supporters believe that a Trump loss signals a nationwide conspiracy against him, and them. Some talk openly of violent uprisings, bloodshed, and assassination. We know where this comes from: Trump urges violence frequently and offhandedly. He says his rival, Hillary Clinton, is guilty of unspecified crimes, promising to prosecute her if he wins and leading choruses of “lock her up!” If Trump loses, he leaves the country to struggle with people who will accept neither the electoral process nor their president.

Now, wait a minute, you might say. Some of his supporters are undoubtedly holding their noses while they vote for him. They know that he’s not actually a conservative, that he has few if any well-developed policies; they dislike his narcissism, his flair for adultery, the things he says behind closed doors to Billy Bush. They just can’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton.

Nope. There’s no excuse. A vote for Trump is a vote to knock apart American democracy.

Trump has dangerously whacked away at America’s democratic, civil, societal, and legal institutions any time he fears they might check his power or thwart his whim. To drive out undocumented people and keep out Muslims, Trump would ignore America’s most basic laws. Aside from the Second Amendment, there’s no place in any of this for civil rights. The Republican party, freedom of speech, the federal courts, the Supreme Court, the FBI—Trump respects none of them. If they don’t deliver outcomes he likes, they must be corrupt. Trump knows the solution: He’ll “drain the swamp.” There are no other stakeholders worthy of negotiating with. If politicians, even Republicans, don’t fall in line, thuggish reprisals await them.

In Trumpland, his dictates will supplant persuasion and deliberation. When he says “I alone can fix it,” of the “rigged” political system, Trump implies that powers won’t be separated. With his proposal of a hulking law enforcement and military apparatus to protect the “decent and patriotic citizens” from the violence and crime he promises surround them, he talks of expanding presidential powers to proportions that no American should be comfortable with.

Even if he never gets the chance, we can’t escape the fact that Trump has asked his supporters to trash the democratic process, possibly with the use of force. And people lined up to support him.

Clinton haters on the far left are skeptical of democracy, too

It’s not just Trump’s followers who are fed up with American democracy. As we also learned this election, a smallish pocket of Bernie Sanders’ supporters are also leaning that way (though it’s impossible to know how many).

Those who backed Sanders in the Democratic primary can, of course, vote for whomever they want today. As of September, three in five Sanders supporters were planning to back Clinton, according to a YouGov poll. Others are voting for Trump, Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein—presumably because they truly support those candidates.

But some of these voters frame their choice as a vote against Clinton, arguing that she is “corrupt,” or that she stole the Democratic primary election from Sanders and therefore must apologize to him and his early supporters.

There are two anti-democratic impulses here. First is the simple fact that even discounting the superdelegates, Clinton beat Sanders fair and square. Refusing to accept this lands you in the group of Trump-backers who believe any electoral outcome that you don’t like must somehow be “rigged.” Then there’s the disturbing trend of knee-jerk outrage against the “establishment” (something that powers the pro-Trump movement, too).

There’s a scary tendency to conflate corruption with having political relationships. This is absurd. Of course Clinton, who has strong relationships within the Democratic party, had a leg-up over a longtime registered Independent candidate. But insurgent candidates can still win Democratic primaries (see: Barack Obama).

It’s fine for Sanders supporters to vote for someone besides Clinton. But those who do so while citing conspiracy theories are eating away at one of the fundamental bonds of democratic society—that we accept even disappointing outcomes as fair.

The obstructionists in Congress aren’t helping

Who else has made democracy-scorn in vogue this year? Congress is one place to look. Most recently, we have John McCain—a Republican senator once hailed as independent-minded maverick—and his partisan comrades’ plan to stymie any of Clinton’s nominees to the Supreme Court should she win. In other words, playing politics with one of the most vital institutions buttressing constitutional democracy is fair game.

Apparently, even among its most vaunted practitioners, the democratic process is an opt-in, à la carte affair.

Where do leaders who really should know better get these ideas? The people, of course. As political expedience and ideological vanity corrode the federal legislature, the engine of America’s democratic process, a lot of voters cheer for more. (Witness the Republican primary fervor inspired by the Senate’s most pious do-nothinger, Ted Cruz.)

Of course, contempt for America’s political institutions has existed for as long as America has. Even the adoption of the US Constitution required significant prodding of the public. But in recent years, we’ve seen a steadily rising share of voters consider themselves Independents. Congressional job-approval ratings hover near historic lows. Even though their government has been locked in an ineffectual logjam, a majority of Americans want it to do less still. And now, a sizable chunk of the American electorate seems to be signaling that they think the system is rigged.

What we learned in the end

What we hadn’t known—and what the 2016 election abruptly revealed—is that distrust of the parties and the “establishment” has grown at a scale and to a magnitude we can only describe as breathtaking. Over the last year, in particular, it has metastasized into a full-blown disowning of democracy.

Could America have prevented this? Maybe; maybe not. Late-life democracies are prone to the demagogic tilt we’re experiencing, as Andrew Sullivan argued in his masterful New York Magazine article earlier this year. And it’s understandable that Trump supporters are fed up. Many feel they have been on the losing end of democratic compromise for a long time.

But the core problem may be more cultural than political. Trump’s pull on white communities can’t be reduced to simple racism. As America has grown more culturally diverse—and as working-class communities hollow out, factories close, and religion recedes—many white Americans have been stranded in a cultural vacuum, estranged from their European heritage by too many generations to have a meaningful sense of cultural identity and tradition. They’re then told by American culture as a whole that their heritage gives them privileges that many of them don’t see, a view imposed upon them through the language of “political correctness.”

Trump fills that void, flouting political correctness in a way that validates people’s feelings, legitimizing their sense of grievance by telling them all the ways they’re victims. He has never needed policy substance, or endorsements, because he has a plane, a model wife, successful children, and a taste for gold plating. Trump is a cultural hero, not a politician.

Oddly enough, the Founding Fathers used to be part of America’s cultural pride—celebrated, in particular, for their ingenious democratic system that would stand firm against mob rule. Is America ready to swap that for a fresher cultural identity and a system free of checks, balances, and rational politics? Wait a few hours, and we’ll see.